Like a troubadour playing the sounds of love
Brandon, a koto player whose activities are based in the Melbourne area, talks to us about the koto and his dreams for the future.
Born in Kuala Luampar, Malaysia, and a graduate of the University of Melbourne, Brandon started learning the koto in university. His teachers include Satsuki Odamura in Sydney, and Kazue Sawai in Tokyo. Brandon studies 17-string classic and modern compositions of the koto, and received an award of excellence from the Sawai Koto Institute in 2011. He is currently based in Melbourne.
(extract from Brandon Lee’s official website)
– You started learning the koto after you entered the University of Melbourne. What caused you to be interested in the koto?
When I was in Malaysia, I happened to watch a DVD of a Japanese band. It was a rock band, but they’d incorporated the sounds of the koto into their music, and I thought “hey, this is really beautiful.” Unfortunately, learning the koto in Malaysia was quite difficult. So when I entered the University of Melbourne, I chose to major in Japanese. The textbook we used had contact information relating to Japanese culture, and one of those was a koto teacher. I thought about giving the koto a try, and ended up really enjoying it. I discovered a lot of great songs, and … here I am now.
– What part of the “sound” do you like?
It’s deep. A single sound is really deep.
Also, depending on the person and their style, the sound of the koto also changes. Kazue Sawai’s style consists mainly of a single sound, but it’s incredibly deep. Nobody can copy it. I definitely can’t. I think everyone is aiming to copy her sound, though.
My teacher in Sydney, Satsuki Odamura is also a wonderful performer. I go to Sydney quite often, and always watch her play the koto. It’s very moving. When I see talented koto players perform, they always inspire me to improve my own skill.
– You were taught by Kazue Sawai in Japan. How long were you there for, and what did you do?
When I was in my second year of university, I did a student exchange to Japan. During that time, I took lessons from Mrs Sawai three times a month as a regular student. After that I returned to Melbourne, and once I’d graduated I came back to Japan as her apprentice.
By apprentice, it means that I lived there and assisted Mrs Sawai with various things. In my case, I lived next door and went to Mrs Sawai’s house every day, cleaning and preparing the instruments. I practiced the koto in my free time. It was really enjoyable.
I was there for two years. At the time, I practiced up to five hours every day. Now … my practice time has decreased a bit (laughs).
– When you talked to your parents about becoming an apprentice, what were their reactions?
They were really supportive, telling me to do what I love. My family have similar jobs relating to the arts, so they understood my feelings.
– Do koto players have ranks like they do in calligraphy?
They do. There’s beginner, intermediate, advanced, lecturer and master. It took about me 3 or 4 years before I became a lecturer.
– When you were in Japan, did you do anything else besides the koto? Like having a part time job, for example.
No, I didn’t do anything. I wanted to concentrate fully on the koto.
– Have you performed in front of people in Japan?
When I was an apprentice, I did occasionally. I was mostly focused on practice, but sometimes I participated in concerts. There was a review event, and I performed with other students in front of about fifty people, but that was about all.
Since coming back to Melbourne, I’ve been doing a lot of solo performances.
– Do you create your own compositions?
No, I haven’t yet. It’s quite difficult, but if I ever get the chance, I’d like to have a go. Right now, I’m focusing on performances rather than creating songs.
– Are you currently doing performances in Australia?
Yes, I am. I want to continue performing in many different places.
– How do Australians react after hearing the koto?
It’s very positive. Many people say that it’s a wonderful instrument.
Of course, Japanese people are also moved by the koto, but it has a very classical kind of image, doesn’t it? So when I play contemporary music, people are surprised that the koto can be played in such a way. That makes me happy.
– What do you want to achieve through the koto from now on?
Firstly, I want the people of Australia to learn about the koto itself. I’m currently teaching koto lessons, so naturally I want to increase my number of students. I also aim to create a koto ensemble in Melbourne.
– Regardless of genre, if you could perform alongside anybody, who would you want to perform with?
I haven’t really thought about a specific artist, but I’d like to co-perform in a variety of genres. Like alongside a rock band, or even with an orchestra. In Japan, Mrs Sawai is doing these kinds of performances, and obviously it’s difficult, but I want to try one day.
– This is the last question, but what does the koto mean to you?
That’s a difficult question …
I play contemporary music a lot, as well as classic compositions. I’ve noticed that overseas there are many people who don’t really like listening to the classic music. However, I believe that you have to treasure the classic songs too. They have a different kind of beauty. If you don’t play each single note properly, it doesn’t resonate beautifully. I think that’s wonderful.
At the moment, I’m focusing mainly on contemporary music, but ocassionally I do want everyone to hear the classic songs as well.
Um, this is difficult (laughs).
– Do you drink beer often?
Yeah. I often drink after performing.
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Koto player Brandon Lee’s official website
Performance requests for Brandon:
From concert halls to fun live gigs, demonstrations at events and school visits, anything is welcome. For further information, please email Brandon at email@example.com
Private or group lessons.
Taking into account musical experience and goals, lessons are enjoyable and allow the student to improve his or her skill. The lessons cater to a wide variety of music, including classic compositions, Miyagi compositions, Kazue Sawai’s compositions, and contemporary music. For those interested, instruments are available for rental. Lessons are $40/1hr, and located a 7 minute walk from Ormond station.
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As the koto is unavailable for purchase in Australia, Brandon says that many people buy the koto while in Japan. Most people get a professional to string the koto for them, but if the strings break in Australia, restringing is generally done by the owner.
After the interview, Brandon played us an English song, and it completely changed my image of the koto as an instrument. It was like being embraced by the smooth melody. If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you see Brandon perform.